Our local “Dissenter from Darwinism,” Fred Skiff, gave a talk last Friday. Prior to the talk, I predicted:
One, that Skiff will provide a strawman version of evolutionary theory (heck, and science itself) as he did last time I saw him speak… Two, that Skiff will assert or imply that evolution implies atheism, and that if one accepts methodological naturalism, one therefore must also accept philosophical naturalism, and choose between evolutionary theory and their religious beliefs. Three, that he will assert that “intelligent design” is the sensible alternative to “orthodox” science, but its study is being repressed by “Darwinists” or something of that nature.
All I gotta say is: damn, I’m good. In a bit of what I assume was unintended irony, Skiff was introduced with a comment noting that discussions about intelligent design frequently generated “heat” but not a lot of “light,” after which Skiff spent much of his time railing against “Darwinists” and “Darwinism,” creating a strawman presentation of evolutionary biology, misinforming about the Richard Sternberg case, claiming that supporters of evolution were out to make it “illegal to question Darwinism” and that the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has said to “destroy intelligent design by ruining reputations.” Is it any wonder Skiff receives a lot of heat after inflammatory rhetoric such as that? A summary of the rest of the talk is after the jump.
Skiff talked to an audience of maybe 40 people last Friday at Geneva Campus Ministry’s “First Fridays,” a monthly event. Presenting a typical creationist background (“I was raised to be a ‘Darwinist'”), Skiff began by documenting his early educational history, where he claimed he was “trained to see religion as an obstacle to knowledge” and then became a Christian after reading the Bible in college. He started investigating the claims of “Darwinism” (he rarely used the term “evolution”) in the 1970s, after he said that mathematicians had found Darwinism to be “mathematically absurd.”
Skiff then said one of the only things where I agreed with him: that before forming an opinion on something, parties should at least read what is being said. This is why my bookshelves are littered with ID material (gaining quizzical looks from those who know me): because I want to read what they’re actually saying, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. However, it becomes clear that Skiff doesn’t read the biology literature to know what he’s critiquing, or if he does, he makes such a mess of it as to render those readings useless when he conveys them to the audience. Typical of creationists, he kept using phrases like “random” and “chance” to refer to evolutionary biology (or, well, to “Darwinism,” whatever he’s using that to mean). Of course, while random/chance mutations may be a source of variation upon which natural selection asks, anyone who’s spent a few minutes studying the theory knows that evolution itself is far from “random chance.”
Also typical, Skiff claimed that there is no conflict between religion and science (which I’d generally agree with)–but went on to say that the conflict, instead, is between two different religions: “materialism” versus the others. From here he went on the typical rant against methodological naturalism and the nature of science, the limits of science, and added for good measure a heaping spoonful of confusion over methodological and metaphysical naturalism. For example, according to Skiff, materialism equals “the belief that the universe is just atoms and empty space,” and therefore that science has no limits, and studies everything that is “real.” Of course, some scientists may believe this, but many do not–they simply see that limiting the study of science to the material world is all that is possible for the time being, and even though they may believe in a deity of some kind, the supernatural is beyond the study of science. He also suggested that, to the materialist, if something is not a scientific question, it’s “meaningless,” and that the solution to this type of nihilism is a paradigm like Intelligent Design, which “challenges the religion of ‘scientism.'”
Skiff then (rather poorly, in my opinion) launched into an explanation of irreducible complexity and Dembski’s filter, using for the former the example of words (which he claimed were irreducible) and examples of insurance fraud and SETI for the latter, but stating that detecting design is “an admittedly tricky thing.” However, Skiff has an undergraduate degree in engineering, and claimed that he could “recognize engineering when [he saw] it.” Language was the example he kept coming back to; for example, claiming that DNA is really just a “high level language,” which speaks of someone (with magnitudes greater intelligence than humans) who wrote it. However, he did contain a very generous note–despite his assertion that biology is essentially just teleology and “absurd,” he did concede that biology still belongs in science.
During the question and answer session, Skiff was asked a question I’ve never seen an ID advocate answer well (see Guillermo Gonzalvez’s answer here): what about using intelligent design to make predictions? Skiff didn’t disappoint; he rambled for awhile about ID being a way of making inferences, and being an interface with the bigger world. He claimed that ID broadened the scope of possible explanations, into a “meaningful system” and not just a “materialistic” one.
So, it was pretty much as I expected. However, I’m not quite as disheartened as I thought I would be, because I think a lot of what he said went over peoples’ heads. He jumped into some complicated science and philosophy without any kind of introduction, so there were a lot of soundbites, but not a whole lot of meat. I’m not sure that, if someone had come in with no understanding of intelligent design, they’d have any idea what it was after leaving the talk. Of course, the downside of this is that there *were* a lot of soundbites, including the whole “religion of materialism” and “make challenging Darwinism illegal” bits. Of course, those aren’t exactly unique to Skiff either, and can be found all over the internet and elsewhere.